Today in London penal history: escaped convicts fight constables, Saffron Hill, 1783.

For centuries, from the early 1600s to the 1860s, England transported hundreds of thousands of convicts, political prisoners as well as prisoners of war from Scotland and Ireland to its overseas colonies in the Americas, and later to Australia.

“Initially based on the royal prerogative of mercy, and later under English Law, transportation was an alternative sentence imposed for a felony; it was typically imposed for offences for which death was deemed too severe. By 1670, as new felonies were defined, the option of being sentenced to transportation was allowed. Forgery of a document, for example, was a capital crime until the 1820s, when the penalty was reduced to transportation.

Depending on the crime, the sentence was imposed for life or for a set period of years. If imposed for a period of years, the offender was permitted to return home after serving out his time, but had to make his own way back. Many offenders thus stayed in the colony as free persons, and might obtain employment as jailers or other servants of the penal colony.

Transportation became a business: merchants chose from among the prisoners on the basis of the demand for labour and their likely profits. They obtained a contract from the sheriffs, and after the voyage to the colonies they sold the convicts as indentured servants. The payment they received also covered the jail fees, the fees for granting the pardon, the clerk’s fees, and everything necessary to authorise the transportation.” (Wikipedia)

These arrangements for transportation continued into the 18th century.

In the 17th and 18th centuries criminal justice was severe: a large, and increasing, number of offences were punishable by execution, (usually by hanging) – many were minor crimes. As there were limited choices of sentencing available to judges for convicted criminals in England, conviction for relatively minor thefts, for example, could end in the gallows. Reaction against this led not only to juries acquitting clearly guilty crims, or deliberately undervaluing stolen goods to reduce the sentence – but also to many offenders being pardoned, as it was considered unreasonable to execute them. All these were clearly unacceptable options and undermined the strict rule of the law.

Transportation allowed an alternative punishment, (although legally it was considered a condition of a pardon, rather than a sentence in itself – thus being presented as an act of the King’s mercy). Convicts who represented a menace to the community were excluded from it, and this in itself was thought to help discourage crime for fear of being transported.

In the eighteenth century, transportation became one of the major dynamics of London life, a chasm that awaited the poor, as much as the gallows, a threat held over the lower orders. The huge distance to the penal colonies often meant convicts would never see home and loved ones again… Even if their sentence was not for life, returning home at your own expense was impossible for most. Many died en route to the colonies, or were worked to death or worn out when they arrived.

Transportation did not go uncontested, however. Opportunities for escape began in the London prisons, where convicts were often held pending transfer to a transport ship; and even once on the ship, sentenced convicts could spend months or even years locked on a prison hulk in the Thames waiting for a transport ship (of which there were relatively few). As inmates on the hulks were forced to do hard labour (often on the docks) and live in cramped, disease/pest infested and damp, sinking tubs, and faced the prospect of a long voyage during which many died, incentives to leg it were high.

At any point in this often protracted process, the chance might arrive to make a solo or collective break for it. Not to mention the chances to leg it en route (few but not unknown), or once you arrived in the penal colonies – although the likelihood of staying free and even getting back to Britain was slim (it was not, however, unheard of).

By the early 1780s, with the option of penal transportation to the Americas severely restricted by the US war of independence, and transportation to Australia still in the planning stage, London’s prisons were overflowing, and the floating prison hulks crowded to the point of explosion.

In 1783 a number of convicts escaped from a transport ship off the coast of Rye, on the Sussex/Kent border.

“A set of villains to the number of 49, rose upon the crew of the Swift transport, whom they confined, and took the two long boats to get on shore; 47 went in the boats, and two in the confusion were drowned. Before they quitted the ship, they behaved with the utmost violence to those who would not join in their plan; and not only robbed the captain and crew, but their fellow convicts, from whom they took all their little money. The captain and crew are since released, and it was thought proper to make for Portsmouth and wait for orders, as the captain did not know how to act…” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1783).

Several of the escapees fled to London, and took refuge in the Saffron Hill rookery.

“Three of the constables belonging to the office in Bow Street having been sent in search of the transports who lately escaped on the coast of Sussex, to a house in Onslow Street, Saffron Hill, where five of them were assembled, a terrible engagement took place. Two of the villains ran up stairs, an escaped at a back window. The three that were left armed themselves, one with a poker, another with a clasp-knife, and the word was with one voice, ‘Cut away, we shall be hanged if taken, and we will die on the spot rather than submit.” On which, a bloody contest commenced. One of the constables had the fore-part of his head laid open, and received three deep wounds from the right eye down to the cheek; another of the constables received a terrible wound a little above the temple from a large poker, after which he closed with the villain, and got him down; the third constable had better success with the villain he encountered, for, by striking him on the right hand with his cutlass, he dropped his weapon, and then they all said they would submit.”

The next day, the captured escapees were questioned:

“The above prisoners, named Middleton, Godby and Bird, were examined before William Blackborrow, Esq. when Lee and Townsend, servants to Mr Akerman, deposed that they, with many other prisoners, were on the 14th of last month taken from Newgate and put on board of a vessel, in order for transportation to America. Being asked by the magistrate, by what means they had procured their liberty, they acknowledged that they had run the ship aground, having confined the captain and the crew, and got on shore in two longboats; that no cruelty was exercised, not any property stolen, except that some of the convicts obliged part of the sailors to change cloaths with them; that they concealed themselves in hedges and ditches till night, and then too different routs; that they (the prisoners), and a few others, collected half a crown among themselves, which they gave to a countryman, for conducting them to Rye, whence they walked to London, where they had arrived but a very short time when they were apprehended and committed to Newgate.”

Saffron Hill was an ideal place for the escapees to head for. The rookery, derived from the medieval Liberty here, had a well-established reputation for thievery and prostitution, but also for its well-developed tradition of self-defence against incursions from the law, and its intricate escape routes, built into the houses and garrets, designed to allow fugitives to get away if pursued.

The Saffron Hill area was ideally situated for illegal activity and refuge, sited as it was in an administrative borderland, where responsibility for policing was split between the authority of Middlesex, the City and the parishes of Clerkenwell, St Andrew Holborn, St Sepulchre’s and the Liberty of Saffron Hill. The few constables and watchmen in service generally limited their patrols to their own patches. The authorities only rarely went into the rookeries; and if they intended to arrest, then only in large numbers. So there usually was plenty of forewarning; sometimes hundreds of the slumdwellers came on to the street to confront a police invasion. Such criminal legends as Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Dick Turpin were all at times residents of Saffron Hill. As early as 1598 (when the northern end was known as Gold Lane) Saffron Hill was described as “sometime a filthy passage into the fields, now both sides built with small tenements.” (John Stow). Much of Dickens’s Oliver Twist is set here – this is the neighbourhood of Fagin and Bill Sykes.

Being so autonomous from regular police presence meant that the rookery thieving community evolved a sophisticated environment to protect their trade. Much of the following evidence was only revealed through demolition during the slum clearances to make way for the new railway and road through Clerkenwell; “Against the incursions of the law…there were remarkable defences. Over the years the whole mass of yards and tenements had become threaded by an elaborate complex of runways, traps and bolt-holes. In places cellar had been connected with cellar so that a fugitive could pass under a series of houses and emerge in another part of the rookery. In others, long-established escape routes ran up from the maze of inner courts and over the huddled roofs: high on a wall was a double row of iron spikes, ‘one row to hold by, and another for the feet to rest on,’ connecting the windows of adjacent buildings. … To chase a wanted man through the escape ways could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police. According to a senior police officer… a pursuer would find himself ‘creeping on his hands and knees through a hole two feet square entirely in the power of dangerous characters’ who might be waiting on the other side: while at one point a ‘large cesspool, covered in such a way that a stranger would likely step into it’ was ready to swallow him up.”

The river Fleet, by this era an open drain, was also utilised; flowing through the middle of the rookery (and being a rough boundary between the Clerkenwell proper and Saffron Hill sections), “though its dark and rapid stream was concealed by the houses on each side, its current swept away at once into the Thames whatever was thrown into it. In the Thieves’ house were dark closets, trap-doors, sliding panels and other means of escape.” In the area’s most notorious low lodging house, the Red Lion Inn in West St, “were two trap-doors in the floor, one for the concealment of property, the other to provide means of escape to those who were hard run; a wooden door was cleverly let into the floor, of which, to all appearance, it formed part; through this, the thief, who was in danger of being captured, escaped; as immediately beneath was a cellar, about three feet square; from this there was an outlet to the Fleet Ditch, a plank was thrown across this, and the thief was soon in Black Boy Alley – out of reach of his pursuers.” Famous fugitives such as Jack Sheppard and Jerry Abershaw were hidden here.

In the same house, there were other means of escape (the stairs apparently resembling those in an M. C. Escher print!); “The staircase was very peculiar, scarcely to be described; for though the pursuer and pursued might only be a few feet distant, the one would escape to the roof of the house, while the other would be descending steps, and, in a moment or two, would find himself in the room he had first left by another door. This was managed by a pivoted panel being turned between the two.” (The Rookeries of London, Thomas Beames, 1852.)

On September 19th, 29 of the Swift were condemned to death for the mutiny/mass escape. Transcripts of the trials can be found here (scroll down). Three days later some were executed, and others ‘pardoned’, ie sentenced to transportation:

“Monday 22. At half after eight o’clock the following malafactors were carried from Newgate in two carts to Tyburn, where they were executed, for being the ringleaders in running the Swift transport on shore… viz Charles Thomas, William Matthews, Thomas Millington, David Hart, Abraham Hyam, and Christopher Trusty; the last three were Jews, who were attended by a priest of their own religion. These audacious villains being executed by way of example, the others (eighteen in number) were ordered to be transported for life, one only excepted, nam’d Murphy, whose term was only seven years.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, September 1873).

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s rebel past: Jack Sheppard escapes from Newgate Prison, 1724 (the first time).

“Whereas John Shepheard broke out of the Condemn’d Hold of Newgate (with his Irons on) by cutting off one of the large Iron Spikes over the Main Door on Monday the 31st of August last, about six a clock in the Evening, he is about 23 years of Age and about five Foot four Inches high, very slender and of a pale Complection, has lately been very sick, did wear a light Bob Wig, a light colour’d Cloth Coat, and white Waistcoat, has an impediment in his speech and is a Carpenter by Trade. Whoever will discover of apprehend him so that he be brought to Justice shall receive 20 guineas Reward to be paid by the Keeper of Newgate.”
(Proclamation from the Keeper of Newgate, 4th September, 1724.)

“A file’s worth all the bibles in the world…” (Jack Sheppard)

In his day he became the most famous name in England and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, his carpenter father died during Jack’s childhood. His mother was forced by poverty to place him in Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills that would stand him in good stead in later years…

“The apprenticeship system was still controlled by an Act passed under Queen Elizabeth, the Statute of Artificers. The system provided young people with a vocational education, in another household…. they were ‘bound apprentice’ between twelve and sixteen. Parish children might begin their apprenticeship as early as eleven, and continue in it until they were twenty-four. (Remember that the expectation of life at birth was then about 36 years.) The contract would continue for seven years or more, until the master was satisfied that the apprentice knew his trade. Apart from some public holidays, no home leave was given. The boy’s parents might not see him again until his time was up. Imagine the child of twelve leaving his home to live in strange surroundings with no parental love, withstanding the storms of adolescence and reaching physical maturity with only the recollection of his childhood and what support his master gave him to sustain him, and perhaps occasional letters from home if his parents could write.” (Restoration London, Liza Picard, 1997.)

But Jack rejected these narrow and constricted channels of apprentice life; with just ten months of his apprenticeship left to serve, he deserted the master to who he had been apprentied, Mr Kneebone, and joined the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’, a group that invoked fear and suspicion among respectable folk for many centuries – a leading moral bogey of the era.

Jack took to a life of robbery. It might be said that Jack wasn’t an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, so that he escaped prison four times. These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry.

It took him less than three hours to escape.

That was in April 1724. From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity.”

Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and

then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday 1724.

While Sheppard’s later escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.’

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone, who called in contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with the repulsive and hated Wild.

Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On his return to Newgate he was locked in the Condemned Hold, a dismal cell next to the Keepers’ Lodge, and close to the prison gate. It had a stone floor, and a wide wooden shelf with a row of iron bolts above served as a communal bed for all inmates. Its narrow window faced onto the dark lane beneath Newgate’s famous arch.

Deputy Keeper Bodenham Rouse ordered Jack to be chained and fettered, but the chains were long enough to allow him to stand by the door and converse with visitors.

The Lodge acted both as a reception room for the prison, and a common room for the turnkeys and keepers, including a bar (run by Mrs Spurling, widow of head turnkey Spurling who had been shot in open court by a highwayman on trial 10 years before). From the table where they sat drinking the screws could keep an eye on those who passed in and out of the prison yard, as well as on the ‘Stout partition” that separated them from the prisons in the Condemned Hold.

In the last week of August, Jack’s ‘death warrant’ arrived, setting a date on September 4th for his execution at Tyburn. He had only a few days to escape if he was to avoid being ‘turned off’.

Jack had previously, according to his own later account, agreed a plan to break out with his three cellmates, but they had pulled out when it looked like they might be reprieved; Jack had also fallen ill with a fever. But on the day before their scheduled execution, news arrived that the reprieve was not forthcoming. One of the men, Davis, gave Jack all the tolls he had had smuggled in by friends, with a view to freeing himself. He and the other two cons then departed for their appointment with the gallows. Jack, determined not to share their fate, set to work with filing away at the spikes set in the top of the partition separating the lodge from the Hold. After two days filing (halting only when visitors or turnkeys passed by) he had filed halfway through the spike. Another day’s work would see it weakened enough to be readily snapped off, he thought, leaving him able to pull himself free through the gap.

However, the next day was Sunday, when crowds of visitors flocked to Newgate, passing in and out of the Lodge all day. Jack was unable to get much filing done. He dared not do it at night as the quiet made the noise stand out and he feared the screws would hear. On Monday morning he resumed his task…

By noon, when Edgeworth Bess and her friend Poll Maggot came to visit him, he was close to achieving his goal. As they talked and laughed he continued filing away. Cruikshank’s illustration (above) hints at how precarious this was, with the screws sitting only a few yards away around a corner. Around six in the evening he managed to snap the spike off, leaving a gap; though only around nine inches square, this was enough for the wiry Jack to wriggle through, dressed in a disguise of a booney and gown Bess had pushed through to him. Pulling himself up on the neighbouring spikes, he edged his way out, lowering himself down into the Lodge. Poll Maggot hid behind a pillar, and Bess and Jack sauntered out past the turnkeys seated at the bar, who he later commented were ironically discussing Jack’s own previous escape from the New Prison, and how they would have not allowed it to happen in THEIR jail. Two women had arrived and two were seemingly leaving, chattering and laughing…

Reaching the street without being challenged, Jack and Bess ran to a waiting coach driven by Jack’s mate William Page, to be joined by Poll Maggot, who had also walked out of the jail without incident. Driven to Blackfriars Stairs, they hired a boat which took them to Westminster… In a Holborn inn, Jack sawed his chains off, fortified by a bottle of brandy. He was free once more… He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess.

Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic. Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St.

In the meantime, the Newgate authorities were seriously embarrassed by Jack’s escape, and the mockery and bad publicity it gathered them: the Daily Journal called the breakout ‘the most surprising Accident at Newgate’, and penny ballads appeared rapidly, taking the piss out of the jailers, or accusing them of letting Jack go for bribes.

However, Jack was re-arrested on September 9th, after he had been recognised around London by various people that knew him, and rumours had spread. He legged it to Finchley Common, but a posse of Newgate turnkeys trailed him there and arrested him and his mate Page. Jack was returned to Newgate once again, and locked once more in the Condemned Hold – this time chained to the floor and heavily guarded.

By this time Sheppard had become a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he replied “One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.” He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate itself! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him. A last minute escape plan was foiled, and attempts to rescue his body to preserve it from dissection by surgeons prevented plans to bring him back to life…

Jack’s short and eventful life may have been cut violently short – but his defiance of authority and his resourceful ability ensured his fame has outlasted him for nearly three centuries.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal past: guns smuggled into Newgate, inside ‘Smoaking hot pyes’, 1735.

Newgate Prison, for 100s of years the most potent symbol of state repression in London, hated and feared by the London poor whose lives it loomed over… Inevitably its story is also one of resistance… As it was routinely used to hold those who had been condemned to death, those awaiting transportation, or court appearances which would very likely end in one or the other, many prisoners had little to lose by trying to escape.

Sometimes these were individual feats, Houdini-style, like Jack Sheppard or Daniel Malden. On occasion outsiders launched raids to rescue inmates, as a crowd of Irishmen did to free their mates in 1749, or the Gordon Rioters successfully achieved en masse in June 1780. Others were collective attempts to fight their way free. The first such mass jailbreak attempt we can find evidence of was in 1275; another riot ten years later was aimed at a breakout, which failed.

In 1735 four highwaymen staged yet another attempted jailbreak. Thomas Gray, alias Macray, Joseph Emmerson, John James alias Black Jack, and Henry Sellon, were all imprisoned in Newgate in August of 1735. They had all been sentenced to death at Kingston Assizes on August 9th, “Sellon, for robbing Mr Collins on the Highway… Macray, for robbing Mr Hammerson of his Watch and Money on Barns Common… Emmerson and James… for entering the House of Jasper Hale Esq of Peckham, and wounding him and his Servant maid…”

Macray had already escaped from the Old Bailey once… he also had a few mates rooting for him, having arranged for “14 well-dress’d persons to appear for him here, most of who, swore he was sick in bed the whole Week in which the Fact was committed, but finding they were suspected, all slipp’d out of Court. [Several of them are since apprehended by the Direction of Baron Thomson, in order to be prosecuted for perjury.]”

So it shouldn’t have been very surprising that outside help was clearly involved when Macray and the other three, attempted to escape the prison on August 18th:

“They were all wounded in an Attempt to break out of Gaol, two Nights before, which Mr Taylor, the Keeper, being inform’d of, and that they were filing off their Irons, got his Assistants arm’d with Blunderbusses, Pistols, and Cutlasses, went to the Door, and desir’d Macray to make no desperate Attempt, for there was so Possibility of his Escape. Macray replied, In their present desperate Circumstances they no body, and desir’d him to retire, for the first that entered was a dead Man. Upon this Mr Taylor order’d the Door to be unbolted and open’d a little Way; which they no sooner heard but they discharg’d 8 Pistols and one of the Keepers as Blunderbuss, but without Execution, the Door between them being very strong. Then Mr Taylor and his Guard rush’d in, attack’d them with their Cutlasses, and overpower’d them immediately. Macray was wounded in his Head, and his Arm disabled; Sellon desperately cut in several Places; Emmerson had one Side of his Face cut away; James was but slightly hurt. On Mr Taylor’s Part very little Damage was done. The Pistols were brought to the Prisoners in Smoaking hot Pyes, by the Assistance of a Man at a house in St George’s Fields, whom Emmerson, upon the Keepers threatening to dispatch him, dicover’d. One of the Keepers jingling his Keys at the Door of the said House, the Fellow took him for Macray broke out of prison, and open’d the Door to let him in, but was himself apprehended.”
(Gentleman’s Magazine, 1735)

Concealing a gun inside a ‘Smoaking hot pye’  – eat your heart, out shoe bomber… Smuggling in weapons to help friends locked in Newgate stage escapes was also a long London tradition.

Macray, Emmerton, James and Sellon were all hanged at Kennington Gallows two days later, on 20th August.

But collective breakouts continued; there were further attempts in 1758, 1763, 1771 and 1777…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal history: Daniel Malden escapes Newgate for the second time, 1736.

DANIEL MALDEN was a prison-breaker, who emulating the exploits of jack Sheppard, twice escaped the condemned cell in Newgate Prison in 1736. Malden’s escapes were considered the more remarkable because Newgate had supposedly been ‘strengthened’ after the notorious exploits of Jack Sheppard 12 years before.

From Canterbury, Malden had served in the navy, but after his discharge took up burglary and street robbery, for which he was eventually arrested and sentenced to hang.

“On the morning of his execution he carried out his first escape. A previous occupant of the same condemned cell had told him that a certain plank was loose in the floor, which he found to be true. Accordingly, between 10 and 11 o’clock on the night [of May 24th 1736], he began to work, and raised up the plank with the foot of a stool that was in the cell. He soon made a hole through the arch under the floor big enough for his body to pass through, and so dropped in a cell below from which another convict had previously escaped. The window bar of this cell remained cut just as it had been after this last escape, and Malden easily climbed through with all his irons still on him into the press-yard. When there he waited a bit, till seeing “all things quiet”, he pulled off his shoes and went softly up into the chapel, where he observed a small breach in the wall. He enlarged it and so got into the penthouse. Making his way through the penthouse he passed on to the roof. At last, using his own words, “I got upon the top of the cells by the ordinary’s house, having made my way from the top of the chapel upon the roofs of the houses and all round the chimneys of the cells over the ordinary’s house”; from this he climbed along the roofs to that of an empty house, and finding one of the garret windows open, entered it and passed down three pairs of stairs into the kitchen, where he put on his shoes again, “which I had made shift to carry in my hand all the way I came, and with rags and pieces of my jacket wrapped my irons close to my legs as if I had been gouty or lame; then I got out at the kitchen, up one pair of stairs into Phoenix Court, and from thence the streets to my home in Nightingale Lane.”

Here he lay till six a.m., then sent for a smith who knocked off his irons, “and took them away wit him for his pains.” Then he sent for his wife; but whole they were at breakfast, hearing a noise in the yard he made off, and took refuge at Mrs Newman’s, “the sign of the Blackboy, Millbank; there I was kept private and locked up four days alone and no soul by myself.” Venturing out on the fifth day he heard they were in pursuit of him, and again took refuge, this time in the house of a Mrs Franklin. From thence he despatched a shoemaker with a messenger to his wife, and letters to gentlemen in the City. But the messenger betrayed him to the Newgate officers, and in about an hour “the house was beset. I hid myself,” says Malden, “behind the shutters in the yard, and my wife was drinking tea in the house. The keepers seeing her, cried, “Your humble servant, madam; where is your spouse?’ I heard them, and knowing I was not safe, endeavoured to get over a wall, when some of them espied me, crying, ‘Here he is!” upon which they immediately laid hold of me, carried me back to Newgate, put me into the old condemned hold as the strongest place, and stapled me down to the floor.”

Not put off by this failure he resolved to attempt a second escape. Obtaining a knife from a fellow-prisoner, on the night of June 14th 1736 he sawed through the staple to which he was fastened…

“I worked through it with much difficulty, and with one of my irons wrenched it open and got it loose. Then I took down, with the assistance of my knife, a stone in front of the seat in the corner of the condemned hold: when had got the stone down, I found there was a row of strong iron bars under the seat through which I could not get, so I was obliged to work under these bars and open a passage below them. To do this I had no tool but my old knife, and in doing the work my nails were torn of the ends of my fingers, and my hands were in a dreadful, miserable condition. At last I opened a hole just big enough for me to squeeze through, and in I went head foremost, but one of my legs, my irons being stuck on, stuck very fast in the hole, and by this leg I hung in the inside of the vault with my head downward for half an hour or more. I thought I should be stifled in this sad position, and was just going to call out for help when, turning myself up, I happened to reach the bars. I took fast hold of them by one hand, and with the other disengaged my leg to get it out of the hole.”

When clear he had still a drop of some thirty feet, and to break his fall he fastened a piece of blanket he had about him to one of the bars, hoping to lower himself down; but it broke, and he fell with much violence into a hole under the vault, “my fetters causing me to fall very heavy, and here I stuck for a considerable time.” This hole proved to be a funnel, “very narrow and straight; I had torn my flesh in a terrible manner by the fall, but was forced to tear myself much worse in squeezing through.” He stuck fast and could not stir either backward or forward for more than half an hour. “But at last, what with squeezing my body, tearing my flesh off my bones, and the weight of my irons, which helped me a little here, I worked myself through.”

The funnel communicated with the main sewer, in which, as well as he could he cleaned himself. “my short and breeches were torn in pieces, but I washed them in the muddy water, and walked through the sewer as far as I could, my irons being very heavy on me and incommoding me much.” Now a new danger overtook him: his escape had been discovered and its direction. Several of the Newgate runners had therefore been let into the sewer to look for him. “And here,” he says, “I had been taken again had I not found hollow place in the side of the brick-work into which I crowded myself, and they passed by me twice while I stood in that nook.” He remained forty-eight hours in the sewer, but eventually got out in a yard “against the pump in Town Ditch, behind Christ’s Hospital.” Once more he narrowly escaped detection, for a woman in the yard saw and suspected him to be after no good. However, he was suffered to go free, and got as far as Little Britain, where he came across a friend who gave him a pot of beer and procured a smith to knock off his fetters.

Malden’s adventures after this were very varied. He got first to Enfield, when some friends subscribed forty-five shillings to buy him a suit of clothes at Rag Fair. Thence he passed over to Flushing where he was nearly persuaded to take foreign service, but he refused and returned to England in search of his wife. Finding, the two wandered about the country taking what work they could find. While at Canterbury, employed in the hop-fields, he as nearly discovered by a fellow who beat the drum in a show, and who spoke of him openly as “a man who had broken twice of Newgate.” Next he turned jockey, and while thus employed was betrayed as a man to whom he had been kind. Malden was carried before the Canterbury justices on suspicion of being the man who had escaped from Newgate, and a communication sent to the authorities of that prison. Mr Akerman [then a prison runner, but later the head keeper of Newgate] and two of his officers came in person to identify the prisoner, and, if the true Malden, to convey him back to London. But Malden once more nearly gave his gaolers the slip. He obtained somehow and old saw, “a spike such as is used for splicing ropes, a piece of an old sword jagged and notched, and an old knife.” These he concealed rather imprudently upon his person, where they were seen and taken from him, otherwise Mr Akerman, as Malden told him, “would have been like to have come upon a Canterbury story” instead of the missing prisoner. However, the Newgate officers secured Malden effectually and brought him to London on the 26th September 1736, which he reached “guarded by about thirty of forty horsemen, the roads all the way being lined with spectators… Thus was I got to London”, he says in his last dying confession, “handcuffed, and my legs chained under the horse’s belly; I got to Newgate that Sunday evening about five o’clock, and rid quite up into the lodge, where I was taken off my horse, then was conveyed up to the old condemned hole, handcuffed, and chained to the floor.”

On Friday the 15th October, the last day of the sessions, Malden was called into Court and informed that his former judgment of death must be executed upon him…”
(
From the Chronicles of Newgate)

Malden had “begged hard that he might be transported, having ‘worked honestly at Canterbury, and done no robbery since last June.’ Instead he was hanged upon the 2nd of November following. his body ‘was carried to Surgeons’ Hall for dissection.

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s penal history: a prisoner uses quick wits to escape, 1732.

“One Brown, a Prisoner, returning from Hick’s Hall to Bridewel, passing thro’ Clerkenwell Church Yard, desir’d his Keeper to let him speak with the Sexton, who was then making a deep Grave. He consenting, Brown took his Opportunity, threw the Keeper into it, and then made his Escape.” (Gentleman’s Magazine, Friday 21 April 1732.)

Nuff said? A brief news item, and we will never know what happened next. No more is said about it in the magazine. What was his ‘crime’? Was he recaptured? Did the screw who lost him get into official trouble for his ‘grave mistake’ (groan).

Legging it from Clerkenwell Churchyard, Brown could have easily slipped into the sprawling rookeries and slums that lined the nearby river Fleet, where shelter for a fugitive from the law was second nature, whole systems of pulleys and planks were set up within buildings to enable crims being pursued by constables to escape, and where whole communities would gather to frustrate the law in solidarity. If he was wearing irons of any kind a friendly soul could be found to cut them off for him…

There exists a relatively contemporary image of a grave being dug in Clerkenwell Church yard, above.

The venues of law, judgement and control mentioned are more tangible.

Brown was very likely being returned from a court appearance to prison. ‘Hicks Hall’ was The Middlesex County court and house of correction, built in 1614, on what is now St John Street in Clerkenwell. It was known as Hicks Hall, after Sir Baptist Hickes, a Middlesex JP who mostly financed the building. Previous to this the neighbouring authorities in the City of London criticised Middlesex JPs for their disorganisation and lack of a local base to try and hold criminals, which was allowing troublemakers, beggars, the poor etc to commit all sorts of wrongdoing in the City but escape into Middlesex with impunity. Previously the Middlesex Sessions had been held in the Old Castle Tavern, also on St John Street. There was local opposition to the building of Hicks Hall: Gracie Watson, an apothecary’s wife, was hauled into court for “giving reviling speeches against Sir Baptist Hicks touching the building of the Sessions House”.

The Bridewell, where Brown was incarcerated and was being returned, was originally a palace, built in 1515 for Henry VIII, stretching all the way from the Thames to Fleet Street. A big sprawling complex, which gradually came to house ambassadors, and visiting monarchs… But it rapidly fell out of favour as a palace, and in the mid-sixteenth century was converted for the relief of the poor. Huge numbers of poor people were arriving in the city, driven from the countryside by growing enclosure and poverty, and the collapse of the traditional welfare system (through the monasteries and abbeys) as religious reform combined with opportunist land-grabbing altered rural life for ever. The initial joint charitable project of the City and the king, the Bridewell soon, however, became mixed with coercion – the homeless poor, the idle, the ‘workshy’ and alleged drunkards were forced into the institution: “And unto this shall be brought the sturdy and idle: and likewise such prisoners as are quite at the sessions, that they may be set to labour. And for that number will be great the place where they shall be exercised must also be great.”

The way the poor were treated in the Bridewell set a pattern for future workhouse policy, and on a wider scale, for the modern welfare state, at least in its coercive face. Bridewell inmates were forced to spin, sew mailbags, clean the sewers in gangs, tread the wheel; even those who had lost a limb were set to on an ingenious hand and foot mill. Prostitutes and vagrants were whipped on arrival, and any acts of disobedience were punished by flogging. Bridewell became a popular place for locking up rebellious or just idle apprentices.

But it was not seen as a prison by the authorities, until much later, although ‘charitable’ inmates were joined by religious dissidents, Spanish Armada captives, and later local petty criminals. There was some dispute as to the legality of locking up those whose only crime was to be homeless and poor, but nothing came of it. Floggings in fact became novelty viewing: idle sadistic better off voyeurs would visit to get off on the punishment of others – a viewing gallery was built to house them.
The ‘president’ of the Bridewell in the early 17th century was Sir Thomas Middleton. He had the power to halt floggings by knocking on the table; the prisoners’ cry for mercy of ‘Knock, Sir Thomas, Knock’ was taken up by people who used to follow him and hassle him in the street, shouting the words after him…

In the 1610s a wave of prison riots occurred in London. They may have arisen less from a deterioration of conditions, than to the coming together of heretics and thieves, or political and common prisoners, creating new collectives of resistance. Martin Markall, the beadle of the Bridewell, stressed the association of landed offenders, such as Irish rebels, Gypsies, and Roberdsmen (marauding vagrants), with those of the sea, mariners and pirates. English, Latin, and Dutch were the languages of communication in prison. The prison, like the ship and the factory, organised large numbers of people for the purposes of exploitation, but it simultaneously was unable to prevent the prisoners thus massed together from organising against it.

In 1653 the Bridewell became a prison for petty offenders and ‘disorderly women’, particularly prostitutes. Short sentences were the norm here, but floggings were common, including public floggings twice a week; ducking stools and stocks also graced the place. Noted inmates included the Fifth Monarchist prophetess Anna Trapnel in 1654. Later the Bridewell pioneered the introduction of minor workhouse reforms, such as schooling for apprentices and children, introducing a doctor, providing free bedding (1788) and abolishing flogging for women (1791). It was closed down in 1855, and knocked down in 1863.

Although Bridewell was for a long time not called a prison, it formed part of a chain of penal institutions that loomed over the lower Fleet valley for centuries, with the Bridewell, the Fleet Prison, and Coldbath Fields on the river’s banks, and Ludgate, Newgate, the Clerkenwell Bridewell and Clerkenwell House of Detention within a few minutes’ walk.

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An entry in the
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Today in London’s penal history: breakout attempt at New Gaol, Southwark, 1775.

Various sites around Southwark’s Borough High Street had served as County Gaol for Surrey over the centuries; jostling with a number of other prisons built in a relatively small area of what was for years London’s southern lawless edge… (Some erected here because Southwark was unruly and famed for crime, prostitution and dodgy characters… others just because land was cheaper and available.)

From 1580 onward the county gaol was kept in the house called the White Lion, a coaching Inn, just north of St. George’s Church, in Borough High Street, Southwark’s main drag. Stow, in 1598, speaks of “the white Lyon a Gaole so called, for that the same was a common hosterie for the receit of travellers … This house was first used as a Gaole within these fortie yeares last, since the which time the prisoners were once removed thence to a house in Newtowne, where they remained for a short time, and were returned backe again to the foresaid White Lyon, there to remaine as in the appointed Gaole for the Countie of Surrey.” 

The Gaol had long been a target for rebels and rioters: in 1640, in the run-up to the outbreak of the English Civil War,” the rabble apprentices released the whole of the prisoners in the “White Lion.”

In the 1650s the inadequate state of the Gaol led the magistrates to try to negotiate taking over the old Clink Prison near the river, but this fell through… The Gaol fell into disrepair as the keeper neglected its upkeep. By 1666 the White Lion, at least the part of it as was still available for use as a prison, was in such a bad condition that the sheriff was obliged to commit his prisoners to the Marshalsea. This state of affairs continued, in spite of numerous complaints, for over 50 years. In 1718 the Court of Sessions decided to levy a penny rate to cover the cost of building a new Bridewell and County Gaol, but 2 years later it was reported that no money had been paid in to the Treasurer.

Eventually, “after 70 years of delay and vacillation” the magistrates were threatened with being indicted “for having no county gaol”, and in the early 1720s a new County Gaol was built, on the same site off Borough High Street, next to the Southwark House of Correction (the authorities did love to cluster their lock-ups, prisons, workhouses and other repressive institutions together in them days… Now the fashion is to shove them out in the country where its awkward for relatives to visit.)

Like most of Southwark’s prisons, the New Gaol was to become a venue for resistance and rebellion. In March 1775, several prisoners attempted a collective breakout:

“Robert Rous, one of the turnkeys of the New Gaol, Southwark, seeing a prisoner, who was committed there for different highway robberies, with rags tied round his fetters, ordered him to take them off; and on his refusing to do it, he immediately cut them off; when finding both his irons sawed through, he secured him, and then sent up tow of his assistants to overlook a great number of prisoners who were in the strong room, and all [bound] him with their irons, which they had knocked off. Rous hearing of it, went up with a… pistol, and extricated his fellow-turnkey from their fury, and then locked the door. All the turnkeys as well as constables, now surrounding the door and the yard; and the prisoners fired several pistols loaded with powder and ball at two of the constables; when, the balls going through their hats, and the outrages continuing, one of the constables, who had a blunderbuss loaded with shot, fired through the iron grates at the window, and dangerously wounded one fellow committed for a burglary in the Mint. At length a party of soldiers, which had been sent for from the Tower, being arrived, and having loaded their muskets, the room was opened, and the prisoners were all secured and yoked, and 21 of them chained down to the floor in the condemned room. Some of the people belonging to the prison were wounded.” (Annual Register, 1775.)

By the time of this escape attempt, the ‘New’ Gaol was already in decline, and new fashions both in prison reform and surveillance rendered it out of date. Between 1791 and 1799 a new County gaol was built at Horsemonger Lane, next to County Sessions house (court). At this time it was the largest prison in the country. It remained Southwark’s principal prison until 1878.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s criminal history: rowdy innkeeper Mary Harvey escapes the Kings Bench prison, 1731.

Mary Harvey was an innkeeper, a notorious owner of disorderly houses in the 1720s and 1730s. She worked in the Haymarket area of London’s West End, along with her sister, Isabella Eaton (a thief and probable prostitute), Mary Sullivan, and various common-law husbands, including David Harvey, and Isabella’s husband John Eaton. Amassing an impressive record of criminal connections, Mary displayed a canny ability to resist the efforts of the Westminster Justices to contain and prosecute her, both on the streets and in the courts. She and her sister became adept at resisting the law and the moral clean-up campaigns of the era; beating the rap in court, prosecuting their accusers in return, and negotiating with the justices to protect their livelihoods.

In the 1720s and 30s, a widespread campaign to close down immorality in London, sponsored by the Society for the Reformation of Manners, (an alliance formed to impose religious discipline and moral way of life on the poor) had drawn in both the arms of the state, in the form of the magistrates and the constables, and private individuals and local communities. Raids on ‘disorderly houses’, rowdy pubs, brothels, lodging houses where criminals were said to live, gather and plan crimes, went along with private prosecutions of individuals, by the Society or informers it backed.

The keeper of an inn, or tavern, in St Martin’s in the Fields, Mary Harvey was repeatedly accused of theft and of keeping a disorderly house. If not a prostitute herself, her activities brought her into close proximity with them. Between around 1727 and 1733 she was the target of a concerted campaign to control and frustrate her activities, and disperse the “criminal” community to which she belonged. Mary and her confederates appeared in court many times during these years.

Mary’s origin is unknown; she may have been Irish, since during the 1730s Mary’s “gang” were described as being Irish. Her first appearance as a defendant at the Old Bailey was in 1728, when along with her sister, Arabella or Isabella Eaton and her common-law husband, John Eaton, she was indicted for stealing the goods of one Jane Fielding. At the same sessions, Mary Harvey and John Eaton were also tried for assaulting Henry Wilcox on the highway. In both of these trials the accused were acquitted. Wilcox had previously been prosecuted for robbery by John Eaton and Mary Stanley, and it is likely that the jury viewed the prosecution as malicious. These trials mark, if not the beginning, certainly the first public outings, of Mary Harvey, who would go on to be described by the London press as A noted virago.

In 1729 Mary’s house was raided by constables, but she locked them inside, “thereby hindering ’em in their duty”. On 9 October, Justice Cook committed Isabella Eaton to the Gatehouse Prison on the oath of three constables (James Body, and the brothers Michael and Thomas Willis), who she had threatened to shoot in the head at the Crown Tavern. She was also charged with keeping an ill-governed disorderly house. By November 1729 both Mary and Isabella were in Newgate Prison, charged with felonies. Mary Sullivan was nicked the same month, accused of involvement with Harvey in the robbery of a diamond ring and a silver gilt snuff-box. The women were acquitted.

By 1730 a campaign against disorderly houses, vigorously prosecuted by Justice John Gonson and his constables as part of the reformation of manners campaign, particularly targeted Mary Harvey and her confederates. A later report stated, That amongst the disorderly houses so suppressed one formerly kept by one Mary Harvey als Mackeige being the Blackmores head & Sadlers Arms in or near Hedge lane and also the house of Isabella Eaton als Gwyn being the Crown tavern in Sherrard Street St James were two of the most notorious for harbouring and entertaining Gangs of Thieves, pickpockets & desperately wicked persons.

Mary Harvey, Isabella Eaton and Mary Sullivan spent most of the time between August 1730 and autumn 1731 in gaol, faced with a number of charges, some of which may have been spurious. Some of the charges resulted from their habit of violently defending their houses and resisting arrest. During this time when Mary Harvey was variously held in Newgate, King’s Bench Prison in Southwark and the New Prison, she made several escapes.

The first was on 14th January 1731 when she broke out of the King’s Bench Prison and took several other prisoners with her. She was retaken in February, but escaped again. There is some confusion about the timing of these various escapes, but after 12 February 1731 she seems to have once again escaped after being retaken, this time with her sister Isabella. When the women were retaken in May, the Daily Post reported that they had sailed to Rotterdam, but had returned to England upon being threatened with the Rasp-house (a house of correction).

Along with Isabella Eaton and William Mackeig, one of Mary’s “husbands”, Mary was eventually tried and convicted of perjury at King’s Bench, but the conviction against her was overturned. Indeed, throughout the period in which Mary and her confederates were in gaol, escaped from gaol, or arrested and charged, only one indictment was actually proved, when she was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house at King’s Bench. Occasionally assisted by legal counsel, Mary and her confederates were able to take advantage “of the flexibility and discretion inherent in the early eighteenth-century [criminal justice] system” to avoid conviction. They also instigated strategic, and possibly vexatious, prosecutions against their persecutors, such as when they indicted the informing constables Michael and Thomas Willis for highway robbery. Although the two constables were acquitted, these prosecutions may have damaged their reputation.

Mary continued to trouble the authorities for a little longer. In April 1732 she was tried for pickpocketing at the Old Bailey along with Ann Wentland. Although Ann was convicted and sentenced to death, Mary was acquitted. After this Mary disappears from the records. There is some evidence that she may have gone back to Ireland. In January 1733 in a dispatch from Dublin, the Daily Courant reported that “On Saturday last, the notorious Moll Harvey, so often mentioned in the English News Papers, was tried at the Thosel [a court], and found guilty of picking the Pocket of one Mr Morgan of seven Moidores, and was ordered for Transportation”.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Today in London’s rebel history: Mass escape attempt foiled, Newgate Prison, 1771.

For 100s of years Newgate Prison was the most potent symbol and reality of state repression in London, the ultimate representation of terror for the poor. From those driven to crime by the economics of serfdom or capitalism, rebels, political activists, smugglers, poachers, heretics and reformers, transgressors of the moral codes… (and obviously a lot of very nasty folk too…)

Opened in the 12th century, originally as part of one of the gates in London’s wall, but gradually expanded to a massive complex of cells and courts. It became a place of hate and fear… generating a thousand nicknames (the Whit, the Burrowdamp Museum, the College, the rumbo-ken, the Start, the Jug, the Sherriff’s Hotel, the Stone Tavern, the Stone doublet…)

From here thousands left in the morning to be drawn in the cart to the hanging tree; thousands more to be transported to bonded labour overseas; tens of thousands to be whipped, pilloried, locked in the stocks…

A shadow of doom… and inevitably of resistance. Throughout its history the Newgate terror complex faced constant resistance, in the form of riots, escapes, and attacks from outside by rebellious crowds.

Escape attempts, solo and collective, were common, even endemic. Jack Sheppard’s famous breakouts became the most legendary, but the centuries were filled with plans, plots and the occasional success.

An example, from 1771:

“October 10: About ten o’clock at night, a conspiracy was detected at Newgate: a number of transports, to the amount of thirty, had, for some time, formed a design to break out; they attempted to put their scheme in execution about nine, and luckily, were discovered, at the time above mentioned, by the keeper; who having some suspicion of their intent, went in among them, and found them at work with two iron crows (weighing about thirty of forty pounds each) to effect their purpose. The ring leaders were closely confined, immediately after, and everything ended peaceably. Great numbers of files, saws, pins &c. were found on several of the transports.”
(from the Gentleman’s Magazine, 1771.)

By transports, is meant those under sentence of transportation to the penal colonies.

Only three weeks after this foiled escape, another plot was uncovered: “Oct. 31: About eleven o’clock at night, a conspiracy was discovered in Newgate among the felons, four of whom had found means to saw off their irons, and had formed a desperate resolution to fight their way out; they were immediately secured by the keepers, who took from them a number of files, saws, etc.”

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical history: attempted royal assassin James Hadfield escapes Bedlam, 1802.

After his unfortunately unsuccessful attempt to shoot king George III failed to kickstart a wondrous Millennium, (see our earlier post) and his subsequent trial and acquittal on the grounds of insanity, James Hadfield was sent back to his cell in Newgate immediately after his trial, but was escorted to Bethlem Royal Hospital a few months later by the Newgate ‘keeper’.

He had been sentenced to imprisonment in ‘Bedlam’ for the rest of his life. His case led Parliament to pass the Criminal Lunatics Act of 1800, allowing the law the power to detain people such as Hadfield until “His Majesty’s pleasure be known”. Giving birth to the concept of criminally insane, and eventually of the ‘Special Hospitals’ as we know them today (Broadmoor, Ashworth and Rampton).

However, two years later, Hadfield and another inmate, John Dunlop, escaped, and Hadfield seems to have got as far as Dover, attempting to flee to France, before being retaken and returned to Newgate. The steward of Bethlem was formally censured by the governors for going in immediate pursuit of him without reporting his absence, or obtaining official permission, but the minute of censure was later obliterated, although it is still legible.

What kind of ‘treatment’ might Hadfield been subject to? Hadfield was returned to Bedlam, where he spent the next 39 years of his life.

During his ‘stay’ Bethlem changed massively. The old regime of simply locking mentally ill (or just strange) people up and charging people to come and poke fun at them had evolved (under head keeper James Haslam) into an allegedly ‘therapeutic’ approach. Haslam thought madness could be cured, rather than being simply an affliction sent by God. His therapy however involved breaking the will of the ‘patients’ through fear, intimidation and violence, before the cause of their problems could be addressed. Some of Haslam’s approach represented a step forward in medical science: the accompanying psychological and physical degradation formed a bridge between the past and the future of mental healthcare… Eventually Haslam’s regime was exposed and a scandal erupted, leading to the closure of the old Bethlem building in Moorfields and a new one’s construction south of the river, in St George’s Fields. However, bad planning and cost-cutting left the new ‘hospital’ cold and damp, and it quickly became overcrowded… It would be the 1850s before new management would usher in some serious advances in care, therapy and rehabilitation…

Hadfield spent much of his time caring for birds and cats, and writing verses – one that has survived is apparently representative of their main subject, the deaths of these pets.

Patients at Bethlem were allowed visitors: in previous eras visiting and even taunting the mad was a popular pastime in polite society. Hadfield was often visited, probably due to the fame attached to his attempt to usher in the millennium by knocking off the alleged king.  One person who visited him was the French socialist Flora Tristan (1803–1844) who recorded the visit in her Promenades dans Londres (1840):

‘He lives in a small room and he is not averse to passing the time of day with visitors.  We had rather a long visit with him; his conversation and his habits denote a sentimental and loving heart, a pressing need for affection, and he has had in succession two dogs, three cats, several birds and finally a squirrel.  He was extremely fond of his animals and was grieved at their deaths; he mounted them himself and keeps them in his room.  These remains of his beloved creatures all have epitaphs in verse which express his sorrow.  Above the verses for his squirrel there is a coloured image of the friend he lost.  I might add that he does a brisk little trade with his feelings, handing out the epitaphs to visitors who in return give him a few shillings’ (tr. Dennis Palmer and Giselle Pincetl, Flora Tristan’s London Journal, p. 163).

One surviving poem of Hadfield’s runs:

“The remains of little Dick my partner dear,
Who, with his vocal lays did aft my Spirits Cheer,
By giving him his food one fatal day,
He in the Cages wire caught his clay,
He flutter’d, trembled, panted, and then down he lied,
I took him up and in my hand he died.
Killed Oct. 3, 1806, James Hadfield”.

Another of Hadfield’s poems, written in his own hand, can be seen at the start of this post… Some of which was lifted from here

James Hadfield died of tuberculosis in Bedlam in 1841.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel history: Jack Sheppard breaks out from Clerkenwell New Prison, 1724.

In his day he became the most famous name in England, and he remained a folk-hero to the poor for over a century after his death. Jack Sheppard was the prison escaper supreme of eighteenth century England.

Just last week I saw Otherstory’s very fine puppetshow ‘Escape Was One’s Mind’, which told Jack’s story in brilliant and stark theatre (See here to catch an upcoming show).

Born in Spitalfields in 1702, Jack’s father died during his childhood, and his mother’s poverty led to Jack being placed in the Bishopsgate workhouse. Beginning a carpenter’s apprenticeship, he picked up some locksmithing skills, which would stand him in good stead in later years

Maybe a childhood in the workhouse left him with a strong aversion to the bonded labour and confining straits of apprentice life, Jack deserted his master, and joining the swelling ranks of the ‘idle apprentices’ (a group that invoked fear and suspicion in the 18th century), he took to a life of robbery.

Not an especially successful robber, he was imprisoned five times – luckily he turned out to be a breakout artist par excellence, – and escaped prison four times.

These technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority, secured his lasting fame among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

The London trades were undergoing a series of transformations as a result of new technologies and the expanding economy. New machinery was deskilling some, factory methods of organisation were making the protective practices of the Craft guilds obsolete and these were changing the relationship between apprentices and their masters. Depending on their trade and circumstances some masters began to fulfil one or more roles simultaneously – they might be working craftsmen, workshop overseers, shopkeepers, or wholesale suppliers. Equally they might be expanding into factory ownership or begin farming out piecework to home workers – or they could be in the process of declining into deskilled casual labour. So the artisan class was fragmenting and reforming in both upwardly and downwardly mobile directions. Crime was as legitimate a way as any to survive.

After deserting his apprenticeship Jack took with enthusiasm to a life of robbery; he was imprisoned five times and escaped four. It was these technically brilliant and daring escapades, as well as his taunting attitude to authority that secured his long reputation among the working class.

In the spring of 1723 he aided the escape of his girlfriend Edgeworth Bess from St Giles’s Roundhouse. In April 1724 he ended up there himself; betrayed by his brother Tom (who was hoping to bargain his own release from a burglary charge) and his friend James Sykes, he was lured into a trap and delivered to a Justice Parry. It took him less than three hours to escape. “He was confined in the top floor. He cut through the ceiling, untiled the roof, and with the aid of a sheet and blanket lowered himself into the churchyard, climbed a wall, and joined a gathering throng which had been attracted to the scene by the falling roof tiles.

From then until the end of November the saga of his escapes grew, astounding ever-increasing numbers of people for their daring and dexterity. Arrested again for pickpocketing a gentleman’s watch, Jack was now taken to Clerkenwell’s New Prison. As his common law wife, Edgworth Bess was allowed to join him from her confinement in the Roundhouse. They were locked in the most secure area, ‘Newgate Ward’, and Jack was weighed down with 28lb of shackles and chains. He soon set to work sawing through these and then through an iron bar. Boring through a nine-inch-thick oak bar, then fastening sheets, gowns and petticoats together, they descended 25ft to ground level; only to find they had landed themselves in the neighbouring prison of Clerkenwell Bridewell! Undaunted, driving his gimblets and piercers into the 22ft wall, Jack and Bess used them as steps and hand-holds and made their way over the wall to freedom in the early morning of Whit Monday, May 25th, 1724.

While Sheppard’s later “escape from the condemned hold of Newgate made ‘a far greater Noise in the World’, the London gaolkeepers regarded the New Prison escape as the most ‘miraculous’ ever performed in England, so they preserved the broken chains and bars ‘”to Testifie, and Preserve the memory of this extraordinary Event and Villian.”

Jack spent the next three months of freedom engaging in highway robbery and burglary. He was recaptured after he robbed his old master, Mr Kneebone. Kneebone contacted Jonathan Wild, ‘the thief-taker General’. Wild was both a trainer of thieves and a deliverer of them to the courts, a fence of stolen goods and returner of them to rightful owners; “a complex and parasitic system” that “had in these years become a system of municipal policing.” (Peter Linebaugh) Sheppard always refused to compromise himself by having any dealings with Wild, either for fencing goods or in attempt to gain more lenient sentences in court. Wild pressured Edgeworth Bess to reveal Jack’s hideaway, and, after an exchange of pistol fire, he was captured and taken to Newgate prison. In August he was tried and sentenced to hang.

On the day his death-warrant arrived he implemented his escape plan; dislodging a spike, he inserted himself into a small hole he had worked in a wall and with the help of visitors was pulled through to freedom. He walked through the City to Spitalfields where he spent the night with Edgworth Bess. Sheppard’s latest escape threw the shopkeepers of Drury Lane and the Strand into a panic; Jack took up robbing again, this time from a watchmaker’s shop in Fleet St. But he and his accomplice were recognised so they left London for Finchley Common. They were pursued and soon apprehended – Jack was taken to Newgate once again.

By this time Sheppard was a celebrity and folk hero of the labouring classes; visited by the famous and interviewed by journalists and ballad makers. He offered some lucid comments; when urged by a prison official to concentrate on preparing himself for the afterlife rather than attempting to escape, he emphasised his preference for the tangible, saying ‘One file’s worth all the Bibles in the world.’ He also condemned the corruption and hypocrisy of the criminal justice system.

As his trial approached Jack implemented his escape plan on the 14th October. This amazing flight from Newgate was to make him an enduring legend amongst the working class for over a century afterwards. Freeing himself from his shackles he then worked his way up the chimney, through several locked rooms and eventually on to the roof and over the wall to freedom.

On 29th October Sheppard robbed a pawnshop for some spending money and began a triumphant tour, a defiant spree through his old haunts and hunting grounds. He hired a coach and, with some female companions, toured his own native Spitalfields – he also drove through the arch of Newgate! Defiantly parading himself around the ale-houses and gin-shops, he was recaptured after fifteen days of glorious liberty.

Jack Sheppard was hanged on 16th November 1724 at Tyburn; a cheering crowd, said to number 200,000, lined the route to salute him, to see him try and escape (tools were seized from him at the last minute), and to rescue his body from the clutches of the surgeons who received the bodies of the hanged for dissection.

But the story doesn’t end there… The tale of Jack was retold, re-written, spread throughout the world… In the 1840s plays based on his life were still regularly being performed for working class audiences, and his name was better known amongst many of the poor than that of Queen Victoria.

John Gay seized upon the story, and reshaped it as the ‘Beggars Opera’, in which the figure of Mr Peachum is Jonathan Wilde merged with the corrupt PM Robert Walpole… This stark comparison between the acquisitiveness of the rich and the crime of the poor, was reworked by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill 200 years later as the Threepenny Opera

Jack is almost an archetype, a popular creation, an ideal born out of an 18th century oppositional culture. Out of the class divide, between small number of the very rich, getting richer, and an increasing number of poor and labouring classes, crammed in London, trying to survive by hook or by crook… More and more people were crowding into the city, as enclosure forced people off the land, or coming from desperate poverty in Ireland Scotland or the north, in search of work or a foothold. In the early 18th century, the blatant corruption of the oligarchy in particular enraged people of all classes below them, and the breakdown of traditional relations, the seesawing economy, bred rebelliousness and riotous anger. The mob (more accurately, any one of a number of overlapping ‘mobs’) were easily roused to riot over almost everything. Demagogues, Jacobites, high churchmen, bigots and xenophobes, all sought mob support for their causes; and a very real opposition to the establishment, especially hatred of Walpole, led to numerous outbreaks.

But this was very much a pre-industrial rebelliousness, a turbulent, unruly proletarian street culture, not yet disciplined by the industrial revolution, with the work ethic not yet fully beaten into people and internalised by the likes of the Methodists (and London always had a stubborn lumpen ethos, never totally brought into Methodist respectability even in radical politics, unlike the northern towns where chartism etc flourished).

In parallel though, there was no real sense of a party or movement, no collective organization on a political level. (There were lots of trade combinations, by workers, though illegal and harshly punished). The Government shut down all criticism and opposition, even satire… imprisoning people for seditious libel for questioning or even mocking the political establishment.

So Jack’s rebellion is very individual, never crystalising into anything more collective; and is very much of its time, when the romantic rebel, the daring and stylish criminal could easily become a celebrity hero, like the highwaymen robbing with panache and dying with a flourish.
Although Jack’s story survived into victorian times, it’s likely he would never have become a celebrity in the same way a hundred years later, in an age where temperance and self-improvement had more sway.

But did the pose of romantic hero affect him after he became famous for his first escapes? Did the adoration of the crowd, the prison visits by the rich and leading journalists, painters etc and so on, swell his head? On the other hand, he is presented as being principled and clear-headed – disdainfully rejecting of religion, his refusal to deal with the repulsive gangmaster/fence/grass Wild… he also seems to know that in the end he is doomed, failing to leave London when he had the chance, in fact, doing the opposite, returning to his haunts, driving in a carriage through the outer gate of Newgate… in defiance, almost fatalistic bravado… But where would he have gone anyway? His only support networks being in London’s slums and taverns; he was as good as dead without them anyway.

His escapes from Newgate in particular made him an idol, because this prison was the most potent centre of repression, punishment and death, feared and hated by the lower orders like none other. Only Tyburn, the nagging tree itself, rivaled Newgate as a symbol of the class nature of punishment, law and the whole weight of hierarchical society. (It would be interesting to know which had more sarcastic nicknames among London’s lower classes – slang terms for being hung, and for Newgate itself, were almost numberless). Jack’s two breakouts from Newgate made the authorities look stupid, undermined the fear and terror, which enraged and scared the establishment that relied in the fear that the prison imposed – but delighted the classes subject to the gaol’s hospitality… Was his name shouted, did his ghost walk, as 56 years later, the London crowd burned Newgate to the ground in the Gordon Riots and freed hundreds of its inmates?

Jack Sheppard fascinated Londoners at the time, and since, partly because his story brings together so many crucial elements: he personifies the moral panic of the idle apprentice, the upper class terror of the lower orders, the sheer class hatred of the poor for the rich – and the vicious merry-go-round of crime and punishment, of law made and administered by the propertied, in their interests, against those with nothing.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Past Tense have also produced a poster commemorating Jack Sheppard to coincide with Otherstory’s puppetshow, it is available from our publications page.